Job Market Depression

THE WALL, THE WILL AND THE WAILING/Image: Michael Moffa

If you need a reminder about how harrowing chronic unemployment and its direst consequences can be, visit Down But Not Out.

There you will find 50 recently posted stories selected from 6,000 emails and comments chronicling the financial, professional and lifestyle devastation inflicted by these recent hard times.

You will also read narratives of hopelessness, despair, desperation, confusion, depression, self-doubt—and, yes, gritty determination—eerily similar to the dust-bowl parched mind set of what came to be ambiguously and insightfully called the“Great Depression” of the 1930s.

Here’s but a small sample (followed by something important you can do to help):

  • “My family is eating stir-fried dandelions out of yards to keep from starving. I am college educated and cannot pay rent. I have not had a penny income so far this year. We were turned down for food stamps. We are natural-born US citizens.” –M.C.
  • “I am an unemployed Iraq war veteran that hasn’t had steady work since I was honorably discharged at the end of 2009. I have a BS in International Relations, an active security clearance, and I speak four languages”—Marshall
  • “Stare—stare at the computer screen, stare out the window, stare at your image in the mirror, stare at the ceiling fan. …depressed big time…think suicide every day.”—Peter K.
  • “We lost our house, our cars and most of our valuables. The local pawn shop is our regular stop at least once a month….. Sometimes I don’t even mention my higher education, because who wants to hire a PHD for a clerical position? I have life insurance. So, when I go out to look for work, I’m really hoping to have an accident so I can leave something for my child.”—Casey N.
  • “I am depressed all the time, I find myself getting angry fast, crying, etc. It is very heartbreaking being that I have an undergraduate degree in Broadcasting with a minor in Marketing and I have a Masters in Public Administration.  Since I have been unemployed, I have moved back home with my mother and become a recipient of WIC, Medicare and Food Stamps.”—LaToya B.
  • “I’m still looking, but not as passionately as before. There just seems to be no hope.”—Norina N.
  • “But thinking about ways you might be inadequate makes you feel inadequate.”—Kurt
  • “I am making an intrepid 9-hour drive up there on Wednesday in my 140,000-mile piecer, praying the whole way my car doesn’t blow up because if it does, I am sunk.  I’m taking snack food in the car in a cooler, because I can’t afford restaurant food.  It’s peanuts and ham sandwiches for me!”—K.R., just before traveling to an interview in Albany for an admin assistant job
  • “I have two baby boys; one with special needs. My husband supports us, but we’ve lost our house already. My tiny unemployment check is $225.00 a week; it pays for gas and groceries—pet supplies and clothing. I have also sold my clothing, many of our belongings, and baby items on Craigslist and in consignment shops. I add oatmeal to many of my dishes to extend the idea of ‘beef’, as well as buying generics. …It’s all very ‘Grapes of Wrath.’”—M.N., unemployed art teacher, Florida.

Are You Doing Your Second Job?

As you glide over these stories, ask yourself whether you are you doing your second job—the emotional one. Of course you believe that the core of your job is to help others find jobs or job-seekers. But your other important job is to help them—primarily the job-seekers—find the strength, resilience and hope to keep looking and trying when they must.

In a sense, this means “emotional labor”—for you and them. It is emotional labor for you to the extent that you have to behave in ways that are emotionally supportive of your clientele and, ideally, emotionally revealing about you in positive ways, especially of the qualities of empathy and encouragement that can support hope, strength and resilience. Put more abstractly, what makes it emotional labor for you is that you are using your emotions to get your job done or that you are doing things to trigger (positive) emotions in your clientele.

Ideally, this task should not have to be spelled out in your job description. It should spring from the heart, not from the head or the head office. But, irrespective of whether its source is inclination or duty, it is a task well worth undertaking.

Pre-Employment Emotional Labor

On their side, the job-seekers are performing pre-employment emotional labor. Having  and investing strong feelings of their own about the job search, their application, results (or non-results),  or attempting to trigger helpful, sympathetic feelings in you, their contacts or the prospective employer is a largely unrecognized form of emotional labor for them—unpaid, until they get a job.

Some of those emotional expenditures, although compelling, are not wise. One important emotional-labor task that you can undertake is to encourage them to “reframe” their problems as challenges and to use frustration to stave off depression (in a way that is explained below).

A second is to do nothing that will undermine whatever hope, strength and resilience they have. For example, as many poignant comments posted at http://downbutnotoutletters.tumblr.com reveal—this following one by chemist and science teacher Norina N., your silence can not only be deafening, it can also be utterly confusing and crushing: “…I rarely get even an acknowledgment that they received my application. Why do I waste my time throwing thoughtfully crafted letters into a black hole?”

Like most small acts of kindness and compassion, helping job-seekers reframe their situations has very high benefit-to-cost ratios: A small effort on your part can dramatically help, and perhaps even save someone’s self-respect and sanity, someone’s family, and, in the extreme case, someone’s life.

Using Frustration to Overcome and Prevent Job-Hunt Depression

A  paralyzing sense of helplessness, despair and futility is a hallmark of clinical depression. Probably more often than not, you will not be able to alter the circumstances triggering those feelings, if you cannot offer the applicant a job. However, what you can do is try to influence the job-seeker’s response to and interpretation of those circumstances.  One way to do this is to draw a sharp distinction between depression and frustration, and then to somehow communicate this difference to the applicant.

What is the difference? It’s a difference that makes all the difference in the world: To be depressed is to believe that all further effort to climb out of the abyss is useless, to believe that there is nothing left to do except feel and look utterly helpless with only one remaining shred of hope—the hope that someone or something, e.g., God, Lady Luck, neighbors, a recruiter, some employer, or friends, will take pity and rescue you. It is a state of painful submission to pain and paralysis. Frustration, on the other hand, is utterly different and far more positive.

For this reason, one of the first suggestions to make is that the “D” word, “depression”, be expunged from self-talk or, as a minimum, resorted to only after the “F” word, “frustration” is given a fair shot at making sense of the senseless and coping.

The Upside of Frustration

Unlike depression, frustration is, in one way, valuable, even when it is very intense. That’s because frustration is a measure of the gap between expectations and results, when and because those expectations still seem as perfectly reasonable and attainable as the obstacles to them seem unreasonable and unfair. Most importantly, frustration is an expression of the conscious or unconscious belief that the goal remains valuable and reasonable, even deserved.

Accordingly, frustration is a dynamic, positive sign and feedback signal to the degree that faith in the goal and its presumed attainability remains strong, even while the means to that goal are being tested or blocked. Depression is not like that. It usually terminates in a disavowal of effort and atrophy of the will.

This is the difference between being hysterical, helpless and prostrate at your own private Wailing Wall and having an empowering indomitable will to surmount it. It’s a bit like the difference between getting sad and getting mad, but more like the difference between giving up and giving it another shot.

Job Market Resilience

GENERIC RESILIENT SKUNK/Image:Michael Moffa

The Pep(e)-Talk

To grasp the difference, watch a Pepe Le Pew cartoon (featuring the debonair, devil-may-care, never-say-die French flirt and irrepressible free spirit, the world’s most famous skunk). Pepe is an iconic survivor: He possesses resilience, determination, hope, confidence and a sense of humor—the perfect mix for surviving the trials, tribulations and frustrations of unemployment and underemployment.

In fact, his will is so indomitable that his stress levels never advance as far as frustration, let alone depression.

Of course, facing nothing more challenging than the quest for “femmeployment” (finding a place in the company of some femme, usually fatale), Pepe can afford to interpret everything as a mere challenge. However, his emotional-volitional skill set recommends itself to anyone facing even the most daunting circumstances.

Consider displaying his image on your desk or, as I do (to inspire stressed-out friends and acquaintances), carry one in your wallet. (I really do.) It may provide a needed wedge into a short conversation or even a briefer, yet invaluable comment about coping with stress—especially by reframing paralyzing depression as galvanizing frustration.

Over the years, I have voiced this distinction many times and believe it has saved at least one friend’s sanity and maybe at least one friend’s life. So, don’t be deceived by the seeming frivolous cuteness of the cartoon. Like most kids’ allegorical icons, this one cloaks deep values and insights.

(If you are not familiar with Pepe Le Pew, this should serve as an excellent introduction.)

Powering Up the Possibilities

By encouraging a rejected or otherwise despondent applicant to respond with frustration rather than with depression, you will take a step toward empowering and buoying them with authentic and self-catalyzing motivators, namely,

  1. Sustained perception of their goals as valuable (the dimension of utility)
  2. Belief in the reasonability of aspiring to those goals (the dimension of justice, equity and fairness, if not entitlement)
  3. Faith in the long-term odds of success (the dimension of probability)
  4. Faith in the power of their will and efforts (the psychological dimension of self-empowerment)

Of course, if a job-hunter’s means and goals are totally inadequate and unrealistic and the situation as it exists is truly and irrevocably as hopeless as it is unbearable, the best you can do is to help the job-seeker find other means, other goals and better skills/resources/opportunities/values/challenges matches—no easy task, but not an impossible one.

At Least Do No Harm

If, through some quirk of scheduling, bad timing or psychological disinclination, you are unable to offer help in the form of the Pepe Le Pew pep(e)-talk, at least you can make a special effort to offer whatever assistance you can or at least to do no harm. What kind of harm? Once again, let the dispirited unemployed at the DownButNotOut website speak for themselves:

  • “He (the recruiter) doesn’t know how lucky he is. I could tell even over the phone I was just one more thing to cross off his busy schedule. He doesn’t realize how much power 45 minutes of his time has over my self esteem and my future.”—Nicki R.
  • “I went from a household with close to $100,000 in annual income, to being unemployable. I decided to return to school to get my bachelor’s degree, but found, after I graduated, that I couldn’t find a job due to the ‘unemployed need not apply’ policies.”—Cindy S.
  • “…the weaning out of middle management as responsibilities were shifted up or down the ladder to maximize output and minimize expenses.”—Jason G.’s complaint about the lack of middle-management positions
  • “The longer one remains unemployed the more potential employers look at you like you’re a bum. I think legislation should be enacted to prevent the active discrimination against the unemployed that exists in companies all over the country.”—Chris C.
  • “But primarily I could feel the eyes on me because of my age and soon felt as if I was no longer able to have worth in a youth oriented society. It became extremely depressing, especially when continually turned down for jobs that paid minimum wage… Age is major barrier, but being female and over 50 is worse than being male and over 50.  It’s as if being a 50 plus woman puts you in the automatic ‘reject’ category”—Susan W., former retail manager
  • “Especially in high-tech, hiring managers hide behind blind ads, third-party web sites, and robot resume readers. There’s no way to do any of the contact-building things that all the ‘pros’ advise you to do.”—Kurt, software engineer
  • “On my last day (as a 50-year-old intern with a 100-mile commute to work), a co-worker told me not to expect to ever hear back from them. They get a new intern every two weeks.”—P.D., single mom with more than 25 years experience as restaurateur, corporate travel specialist and graphic designer
  • “Recruiters – they must be very busy pounding square pegs into round holes because they don’t return my emails or phone calls.”—Peter K.
  • “I can say that the longer I have been unemployed, they less hopeful I am of ever finding work. Most places see the big gap in my employment history, and they automatically assume that I have no work ethic.”—David W.
  • “And don’t even get me started on temp agencies.  I have wasted hours on tests and achieve mastery level on them.  They act impressed, they tell me I’m quite qualified, but then they never call.  I mention a position in the paper that is EXACTLY what I’ve done and they tell me that I am not a good match?!”—Janet H.
  • “When there is a job fair, please don’t waste our time by having a bunch of businesses show up to do nothing but promote their business, as many are clearly not there to hire…”—Susan W.
  • “You fill out an application, even attach a resume, but what happens when I hit the send button? Does some one actually see it? Can I get some form of a response saying they got it? I realize companies were bombarded with applications for any position, but throw a guy a bone. Let the applicant know what is going on, please…”—Tom W.
  • “The other thing I hated was getting called for an interview with hardly any information. Companies would put an ad out there looking for people with not much more information than that. They would do a lot of short interviews to see what they got. I am sorry, a 5 minute 2 question interview doesn’t mean much of anything to anyone.”—Tom W.

The Two Depressions

If the Down But Not Out website’s wrenching litany of woe doesn’t make you gasp, it and the recommendations in the foregoing should help you grasp the scope and depth of the anguish of the unemployed and help you understand what you can do to stave off at least one kind of depression.

The kind spelled with a small “d”, and “Great” only in the worst sense.



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